Benediction Online

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The man who didn't wear a wedding garment

Today we heard a parable about a great banquet. It’s the third in a series of parables which Jesus told after the Jewish leaders asked by whose authority he was teaching. It is similar to a parable in Luke and also one in the Gospel of Thomas. But it’s different, and it’s that difference which makes it hard for us to hear and to understand.  In Luke, the friends who have been invited to the banquet all make excuses so the man throwing the party sends his servants out to invite everyone in so that his house will be full. It’s a lovely picture of the great banquet in the reign of God and a warning that not everyone who is invited will make it. Apparently the custom of the time was to issue invitations without a definite time and then when everything was ready, servants were sent to say “That party you said you’d come to – well its now!” But even if the timing was unexpected, the excuses of the guests in Luke were pretty lame.

The guests in Matthew’s story were quite different. They didn’t bother with lame excuses. They just refused to come. And some went so far as to beat up the king’s servants and even kill them. Does this remind you of last week’s parable where the vineyard tenants beat up and killed the servants who came to get the rent and ended up murdering the heir to the vineyard?  But in that parable it was the crowd who said they should be severely punished. This time it’s actually there in the parable. The king himself was enraged and sent his army to destroy those who had killed his servants, and their city.

Doesn’t sound much like a God of love does it?

And what about the wedding garment? When I was a teenager I was told that in those days everyone had special robes for weddings and this man had been so rude that he hadn’t bothered to go home and get his. This puzzled me. If the servants were rounding up everyone they could find on the streets – good and bad alike we’re told – did all the beggars and homeless people have wedding garments, and if so where did they keep them? It’s also been suggested that the host himself might have had a big supply of suitable wedding garments, and this one person just didn’t bother to put one on.  Very bad manners. And really rather stupid when we remember that this king had just annihilated his supposed friends for not coming to the wedding feast of his son, who incidentally, never appears.

I heard a story about a pastor who regularly gave a children’s sermon about Jesus. One morning he started with “Now boys and girls, can you tell me what this is?” and he held up a stuffed squirrel.  There was silence. Again he asked, “Now don’t be shy, what is this?” One brave child said, “Well I know I’m meant to say Jesus but it sure looks like a stuffed squirrel to me.”

We are so used to Jesus telling parables where God is the central character – the sower and the seed, the father in the prodigal son, the owner of the vineyard and so on, that we assume the king in this parable is meant to be God. Even though it looks like a squirrel we think we’re meant to see Jesus; even though this looks like a pretty evil and bad-tempered king, we think we’re meant to see God.

But we don’t actually know that the king is meant to be God. Jesus starts this parable differently than he does others. Instead of saying “The kingdom of heaven is like a king…” he says something more like “The kingdom of heaven may be made like a man, a king…” Some commentators wonder whether in fact Jesus is describing the way the Jewish religious leaders described it. According to those scholars, the different introduction suggests that this isn’t Jesus’ picture of the kingdom of heaven – it is more like a satire. I confess that I don’t find that totally convincing.

For me, a more plausible idea is that Jesus’ listeners would have immediately thought of the flesh and blood king, Herod, who acted rather like the man king in the story. If that is the case, if the man king is Herod whom Jesus opposed, then we need to ask who Jesus intended to be seen as embodying the kingdom of heaven. [1]

Could it be the guy who doesn’t have a wedding garment?

In not having a wedding garment, this character acts as a lightning rod for the wrath of the king who we know can be pretty violent.  It might bring to mind another verse from Matthew (11:12) “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force.”  Human kingdoms survive by violence but the kingdom of God is the opposite. The Kingdom of God is one which suffers violence and does not retaliate because forgiveness and love are known to be the greatest powers.

We can see now that this parable is not a picture of God’s behavior but the opposite; a picture of the violence of the kingdom of this world. So in this man without a wedding garment is Jesus talking about how he will be treated in the not too distant future?

It is the king who notices a man not wearing the right clothes. Perhaps it is the king who decides who is properly dressed, as arbitrarily as he decided whom to kill and declared that those people were not deserving of his invitation.  The good and bad alike are gathered into the wedding feast but the king singles out one person who seems different and demands to know why he’s not dressed like everyone else. Could it be that this one man is making a statement of non-violent resistance? He came but he didn’t dress right in defiance of the violent nature of this banquet?  Just like Jesus at his mock trial, the man does not answer the king. He does not explain his clothing. He does not try to defend himself against the violence that the king symbolizes. He knows that violence feeds on anger and fear.

That’s something we’re seeing very clearly right now. Violence is rampant in the Middle East and parts of Africa, and it’s also ramping up in the streets of this country with growing mistrust between law enforcement and the people they are charged with protecting. Fear of being shot or attacked leads to police over-reaction; fear of the police leads to people refusing to cooperate and making defensive moves which only escalate the situation, especially when race is involved.

We have a Center for Disease Control which works to understand and contain and reduce communicable disease. We need a Center for Fear Control.

And that is our challenge.

We are the people who have enrolled in the kingdom of heaven. We are the ones who are called to live in love and forgiveness and trust in God, not in fear and grasping and violence.

It’s difficult.

As I read that another person in this country has contracted Ebola, I feel concern, even fear. I don’t want an epidemic of Ebola to hit us. When I listen to the reasons for the US military going to war against the Islamic State and I hear of cold-blooded executions, I feel fear. Especially when our leaders declare that ISIS is a threat to us here at home. When I think about the effects of global warming and the possibility that we will have another winter of drought, I feel fear.

There is much that we can be afraid of. But fear leads quickly to wanting to make sure I’m ok even at your expense. Looking after number 1 leads quickly to imagining that other people really are out to get me and then it’s a short step to buying a firearm just in case and another short step to using it when a stranger comes to the door even if they have come for help.

So we have to get off the cycle of violence before we get caught up in it. We, the people of God, who follow the one who allowed himself to suffer violence and in doing so showed that it is ultimately powerless, we are the ones who are called to replace fear with love, anger with patience, violence with peace.

Herein Los Osos we live in a privileged place where there is plenty of food and we can walk unafraid in our streets, even at night. But we are interconnected with all life and we are connected by the God who touches all beings and all things, even the most violent mind on the planet. The Islamic State fighter dressed in dramatic black is no stranger to us, nor is the terrorist plotting to disrupt our society. They are connected to us through the Holy Spirit who is in and through all things.

So as we resist fear, as we resist violence in our own minds, we are helping them also to find alternatives to the fear and anger that motivate them. Now when I talk about resisting fear or resisting anger or violence, I am talking about non-violent resistance. We all experience fear, we all experience anger; the trick is not to get caught up in them – to notice them and let them go and in their place offer forgiveness and love. One of us mentioned yesterday that she has started a practice of saying “I forgive you” whenever she thinks of someone – not just people she feels anger towards, but everyone. “I forgive you.” How differently we would approach our lives if we train ourselves to approach every encounter, every person with “I forgive you.” Then God’s love, which is the strongest force there is, would move unimpeded through our lives bringing healing all around us.

The kingdom of heaven is like a man, a woman, a group of people of all shapes and colors and sizes, who refused to get caught up in fear, who refused to allow violence to dominate them. And when a violent king forced them to his feast, they wore the clothes of peace and they did not eat the meats of violence. And although the king was enraged, they forgave him and they knew that all he could do was… nothing because they were already living in the kingdom of heaven where life continues and grows more abundant every day.

[1] See


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